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The centralised nature of our internet makes outages like Fastly’s inevitable

4 min read

When Sir Tim Berners-Lee first envisioned the world wide web, he dreamt of a big, collaborative space in which anyone could read, write and own a webpage, where companies could list their products and everything could link together efficiently. The first 10 years of the web’s life following its invention in 1989 were exciting: a time when it looked as though international barriers were crumbling and each person could be their own “independent self” he recalled in January – the web’s golden age in which everything was decentralised.

But as the web grew so did the companies seeking to exploit it, allowing tech giants including the big five – Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Google and Facebook to monopolise online retail, cloud computing and web search among other areas and aggressively gobble up the promising start-ups that threaten their dominance. This concentration of power turns companies into gatekeepers and forces web users to rely on just a handful of enterprises, Sir Tim has protested, describing the current web as an “engine of inequity and division; swayed by powerful forces who use it for their own agendas“.

While Sir Tim’s unhappiness at the way the modern web treats user data is mainly focused on data ownership being wrested away from the individual, over-reliance on a small number of internet businesses can have unexpected consequences, particularly in the age of cloud computing.

Fastly’s clients were affected to varying degrees (Photo: i)

When a significant number of the world’s most-visited websites fell offline without warning on Tuesday morning, an issue with cloud computing company Fastly’s content delivery network (CDN) was swiftly blamed. While outages at CDN firms are not overly unusual – Amazon Web Services (AWS), Cloudflare and Google have all weathered disruptions in the past year – the scale of Fastly’s failure was remarkable. Reddit, Amazon, PayPal, the UK’s government and HMRC pages were among the biggest sites rendered inaccessible to millions of visitors by what Fastly eventually confirmed had been a service configuration in its system.

Adam Leon Smith, a software testing expert with BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, says our reliance on the likes of Amazon and Microsoft to provide an internet infrastructure backbone has re-centralised the web: building systems from much smaller parts where individual components are very good at doing one thing – until they fail.

“If I have a website in America and I’m streaming video to a global audience, I’ll go to a content delivery network because they’ve got local servers all around the world, meaning they can effectively cache my content and that audience can connect at the same speed all around the world,” he says.

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“That’s a great idea, but the internet was built to be decentralised to withstand the failures of individual [networking device] nodes. What we’re seeing these days is consolation on things like AWS and Microsoft – these are all content delivery networks that are actually re-centralising the internet in quite an interesting way.”

While Fastly’s outage is a wake up call for its customers, who will be doing back-of-the-envelope calculations to work out their losses during the downtime, there’s no obvious solution, warns Kevin Curran, Professor of Cyber Security at Ulster University and senior member of technical professional organisation IEEE.

“These networks are so complicated, I’m amazed they work most of the time,” he says. “The Fastly outage has shown us that the web is not as decentralised as we think it is. But the web is a business, and without these kind of systems, major sites would cost twice as much to run and have twice as much redundancy [installing backup systems to ensure network availability if the original network fails]. People don’t realise how much it costs to host these websites, it costs a fortune.”

While Sir Tim is busy dedicating his time to building a newly-decentralised version of the internet via his web platform Solid, until the public grasps how important that data is and mounts a full backlash against the ways in which tech giants abuse it, the ways in which the internet operates is unlikely to change, Prof Curran adds. Hospitals and banks and airlines and power grids and other major infrastructure systems need to ensure they have sufficient extra security layers and protocols in place for when people make configuration changes and to crucially, to learn from their mistakes, he says. “At the end of the day, the five giants rule the internet. But the internet really can be brought down by one person making a mistake.”

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